The Union County Performing Arts Center provides exciting live performances that are educational, affordable and responsive to the diverse interests of our communities. Enjoying a prime location in Union County, UC PAC is dedicated to making this landmark theatre your choice for the performing arts - for education, inspiration and entertainment. With 1,300 seats, the UC PAC is one of the largest theatres in Union County.
UC PAC continues to commit itself to achieving excellence in the arts and humanities and supporting its community by:
Actively participating in the development of the Cultural Arts District of Rahway, revitalizing the local community and enhancing the prestige of both the City of Rahway and the County of Union
Providing a regional showcase through presentations which reflect the diversity of the community
Encouraging cultural and educational opportunities for all ages
Presenting established and emerging NJ performers and artists
Preserving and enhancing the historic Rahway Theatre as an architectural and cultural landmark and maintaining its designation on the State and National Register of Historic Places
Recruiting support of the arts, in general and for the area’s artistic community and the UCPAC, in particular from businesses, individuals, governmental entities and other organizations
The Center Today
The Union County Performing Arts Center: A Living Landmark
Union County Performing Arts Center is housed in the restored Rahway Theater, conveniently located in downtown Rahway, in close proximity to a NJ Transit train station. This historic landmark is the cornerstone of the Rahway Arts District. Union County Performing Arts Center has played a vital role in the revitalization and cultural renaissance of the community.
A Classic Vaudeville House: Part of the magic of the Union County Performing Arts Center is experiencing live performances in a vintage 1928 vaudeville and silent movie palace of just over 1300 seats. Lovingly restored to its golden age grandeur, the Performing Arts Center is a monument to an age gone by. The original building is the Rahway Theater, and with its 1,300 seats, it is one of the largest functioning centers for the performing arts in Union County.
One of the special features of the Union County Performing Arts Center is its original Wurlitzer organ. The UC PAC’s organ, a modest Wurlitzer of seven ranks (500 pipes, plus percussives), was the catalyst for the preservation effort from which the Performing Arts Center emerged. Since the 1960s, when it was first restored, the organ has been played regularly, and frequently recorded by celebrity organists and Arts Center volunteers. Because of its enormous sound, though small size, it has become known as the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer.” You can learn more about the history and restoration of our theater organ from the Garden State Theater Organ Society.
The Union County Performing Arts Center is a living landmark. The theater is listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places and is now operating as a multi-purpose venue for the performing arts. Union County PAC is also listed on PreservationDirectory.com, an online directory and resource center for historic preservation, building restoration and cultural resource management. The UC PAC is a qualified organization of th New Jersey Cultural Trust.
History of the Old Rahway Theater
Opening night for Bratter and Pollack’s million-dollar Rahway Theater was Tuesday, October 16, 1928 at 7:30 p.m. – a gala benefit film and stage show that was the city’s social event of the year. The opening performer was Chet Kingsbury, the house organist. His name didn't appear in the program, but it really didn't matter. The real attraction was the magnificent $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ on which that virtually forgotten artist played. The first program was a double feature of “Tenderloin” with Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel, and “Ham and Eggs at the Front” with Myrna Loy, Tom Wilson, and Chester “Heinie” Conklin.
The theater was built for both vaudeville and movies. It included a magnificent chandelier, an orchestra pit, a Wurlitzer organ, dressing rooms, an elegant lobby, a sitting room and a nursery for the children of theater patrons. Outside, the front façade displayed a huge vertical sign indicating “Rahway” topped with a flashing diamond and boasted a marquee with over 2,500 lights. According to local newspaper reviews of the grand opening, “The theatre contain[ed] the latest innovations in lighting and staging equipment, capable of producing any conceivable type of show to the highest degree of professionalism…the splendid décor and lighting of the auditorium were crowned by a pendant dome with a 9 foot wide by 13 foot tall crystal chandelier with over 500 lights.” The theater was the last word in opulence.
Designed by noted architect, David M. Oltarsch and built by Barney Engelman, a Rahway merchant, the theater was constructed in the classical revival style. It is a classic example of the “picture palace,” a type of structure representing a unique and short-lived social and architectural phenomenon of the early 20th century. The Rahway Theater was a link in the Bratter and Pollack east coast chain of silent movie and vaudeville houses. Its location on the Pennsylvania Railroad corridor between New York City and Philadelphia made it a likely stop for shows that were traveling between the two major cities. However, the theater opened late in the life of vaudeville – sound movies arrived only a few months after the opening. The Rahway Theater struggled during the Depression. RKO endeared itself to the community at that time by providing jobs to the unemployed as door-to-door ticket sellers. In 1936, the theater was sold to the Columbia Amusement Corp. World War II helped propel the country into a new period of prosperity. The movies provided an escape from hard times, and the newsreels kept the public informed about the progress of the war.
There was no immediate sign of change in movie attendance when the war ended. In fact, the Rahway Theater would continue to draw sizable audiences well into the 1960s as a movie theater, but the handwriting was on the wall. The grand era of the picture palace was facing a premature death. By the early 1970s, the building had fallen into disrepair.
Rahway Landmarks, a nonprofit corporation formed specifically to purchase the theater and preserve it as a performing arts center, could not have asked for a better impetus for its drive to raise the necessary funds. Three years later, on September 11, 1984, the title to the theater was transferred from the Wood Theater Group of Morristown to Rahway Landmarks, Inc. Within weeks, restoration was underway.
In October 1985, by resolution of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Rahway Theatre was officially renamed the Union County Arts Center. Its primary interior restoration was from 1986 to 1990. The facade restoration was started in 1996, and the backstage and orchestra pit restoration were completed in 2008. Today, the theatre has become the anchor building in the Rahway Central Business District and has significantly contributed to the economic revitalization of that district. Efforts continue to address ongoing maintenance needs, additional restoration work and the modernization of certain aspects of the facility to enable it to continue to be a superb performance space.